The sun has set in western Syria on Monday. According to the terms of a deal brokered by the United States and Russia, sundown marked the start of a temporary ceasefire.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the deal would stop the Syrian air force from attacking opposition targets. The ceasefire will also allow for much-needed humanitarian access to besieged cities such as Aleppo.
But just hours before the ceasefire was set to begin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a defiant message to the country’s opposition, vowing “to retake every piece of land from the terrorists.”
He made his remarks during a symbolic visit to the former rebel stronghold of Daraya, a now-devastated Damascus suburb.
“We have come here to give the message that the Syrian nation is determined to retake every piece of land from the terrorists, and to re-establish safety and security, to reconstruct and rebuild infrastructure and rebuild everything that has been destroyed,” he said in footage broadcast by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
“I think this message needs to directed … to those who bet against Syria in the first days, weeks and months of the crisis and until today,” he said.
He said the message was especially targeted at “the countries that intervened directly in the conspiracy against Syria and supported the terrorists, and their traitors and agents — from among the Syrian people — who decided to be part of the foreign plan.”
Assad’s family has ruled Syria for 45 years. He has often referred to opposition members seeking his ouster as “terrorists.”
Daraya was held under siege by the regime for years, until an evacuation deal just weeks ago allowed thousands of civilians and hundreds of rebel militants to leave the city in a major victory for Assad.
In June, activists said the Syrian regime pounded the area with barrel bombs just hours after food aid was delivered to the besieged suburb for the first time in nearly four years.
An activist from the Aleppo Media Center — an opposition-affiliated activist group that works to document the conflict — told CNN in rebel-held east Aleppo that he read Assad’s symbolic presence in a formerly opposition-held area as a sign to “that this could be our fate someday.”
Nervous hopes for ceasefire
The country’s war-weary residents will be watching to see if the fighting will stop for a full 48 hours, in line with the hard-fought ceasefire brokered Friday by the US and Russia. If the accord holds for seven days, Russia and the US will begin to discuss military options for targeting one-time al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, previously known as the al Nusra Front, and ISIS. Considered terrorist groups, they are not covered by the agreement and military operations against them will continue throughout the ceasefire.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov have secured buy-in of Assad, as a key partner in seeking a halt to the bloody conflict.
The ceasefire offers hope for at least a temporary respite in the violence, and an opportunity for the delivery of much-needed humanitarian relief for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
“We are ready to get assistance into Aleppo right away,” said Dominic Graham, Syria Response Director for international aid agency Mercy Corps.
“We have food rations packed and ready to go, but we must be certain the ceasefire is holding with all parties before sending people and trucks into harm’s way.”
Given the failures of the past, some Syrian groups say they are hesitant to embrace the truce agreement — that they are wary of any deal that doesn’t cover all besieged areas of the country.
Pessimism over ceasefire prospects
Airstrikes continued to pummel opposition targets in the lead-up to the ceasefire, with at least seven people, including three children, killed in rebel-held eastern Aleppo Monday, according to UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
The latest assault followed the deaths of 93 people in airstrikes in Aleppo and Idlib over the weekend — 61 of them in an attack on a popular market where residents were shopping ahead of the Eid al-Adha holiday. It appeared to be an intensification of bombardment in the wake of Friday’s ceasefire announcement.
Upticks in violence also have occurred before previous attempts to impose truces in the conflict.
An activist for the Aleppo Media Center said the airstrikes on Monday, the first day of Eid, did little to inspire confidence in the prospects for the ceasefire.
“We are not optimistic about this ceasefire,” he told CNN, as explosions rang out in the background.
“What the Assad regime is doing is dragging the opposition and Free Syrian Army to break the ceasefire later today. The Free Syrian Army already have a negative attitude towards this ceasefire,” he added.
Rebel groups have already voiced reservations about the ceasefire proposal, which comes as Assad appears to have the stronger position in the conflict.
Hardline Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham attacked the terms of the deal Sunday, saying it would only strengthen Assad’s hand, while a representative of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) group called Fastaqim Union told CNN that it too had sent a message to the United States expressing concerns.
“We also have reservations about targeting (Islamist rebel group and one-time al Qaeda affiliate) Jabhat Fateh al-Sham because we think that targeting them will be in the favor of the regime. We don’t trust the regime and there are no actions that will be taken in case the regime violates the truce,” FSA representative Zakaria Malahfki said.
Kerry said the accord, announced after hours of talks in Geneva, would prevent Assad’s air force from flying combat missions anywhere the opposition is present, calling this provision the “bedrock of the agreement.” He labeled the Syrian Air Force the “main driver of civilian casualties” and migrant flows.
The worst strikes over the weekend were in Idlib, where at least 61 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in an attack that targeted a crowded market, an activist who witnessed the bombing and its aftermath told CNN.
The activist, who asked to be identified only as Omar for security reasons, said he was in Idlib to cover the atmosphere a day ahead of the Eid al-Adha holiday. Omar took a detour to the city since the roads near the markets were closed as a security precaution, and that probably saved his life, he said.
“We heard a whistling sound, then the explosions,” Omar said. “Two or three rockets landed in middle of the market.”
Omar said Syria Civil Defense teams couldn’t reach the site quickly because of the road closures. He said the field hospitals were overwhelmed.
Video from the scene showed White Helmet rescuers — the nickname for Syria Civil Defense volunteers — carefully squeezing beneath piles of stones to look for victims. Cries of “Allahu-Akbar” filled the air when the rescuers found a victim alive and pulled them out to safety.
‘Best option of all bad options’
After five years, Syrians are weary of a war that has left more than 250,000 dead and forced nearly 5 million to flee the country. But many activists and Syrians, especially those living in rebel-held areas, remain skeptical of the latest peace deal.
“It’s in the general interest of the Syrian people to stop the rivers of blood, and stopping bloodshed is the first step,” said one Syrian in Aleppo. “It’s a good step, but what’s the guarantee that it will remain in place?”
“This is the best option of all bad options,” said Fawaz Gerges, speaking to CNN’s Becky Anderson on Sunday. Gerges is the chair of contemporary Middle East studies at the London School of Economics, and the author of “Isis: A History.”
Gerges said the big question is whether the guns that are scheduled to fall silent Monday would remain silent in the weeks and months ahead.
“The reality is, where do you go from there?’ he said. “The reality is the balance of power favors Assad at this particular moment.”